Short Story: X - The unknown factor | Sunday Observer

Short Story: X - The unknown factor

The letter X is the 24th in the English alphabet. When you turn the pages of a dictionary, you will notice that the number of words starting with the letter X is few. This letter has intrigued me, over the past few years. It has taken a new meaning. During school days, in the bit of Mathematics I learnt, X was considered ‘The Unknown Factor’. You had to work out the formula and find out what it was!

I met Nelum at the Golden Jubilee lunch. We were back at the University campus. We had been undergraduates fifty years ago. That was a time when only a small number entered the University. Just about a hundred and fifty females and males from all parts of the country were taken in.

“Where is Piyal?” I asked.” Didn’t he want to come?”

“No Rupa”.

“The two of you went to lectures together; to the canteen, library and on hikes and trips. But now?”

“That was when we were in the campus. Every evening we used to meet. When we passed out, we were back at home. We could not meet because our native places were far from each other. We found solace in the postal service. We used to write to each other daily. ”

“So did your parents give their consent to get married?”

“No. At first they objected. I told them about our decision, Piyal’s and mine. They agreed reluctantly.”

“Wasn’t there any objection from Piyal’s family?

“There was. But lesser than from my parents.”

“And you tied the knot”.

“Yes, after much heartache”.

“So you reached that point where the diagonal lines of the lower part of the letter “X” meet?

“Rupa, what are you talking about? I don’t understand what you mean?”

“Come we’ll join the others for lunch. I’ll explain later.”

It was a never-to-be repeated gathering. Every one of us was nearing three scores and ten. We had not met some of our batch mates for 50 years. We recognised each other though time had etched its passage on the faces. Amid the differences, there was a constant chatter, exchange of news on a myriad of topics.

“So the two of you are still thick pals? Are you still sharing secrets?” Lal, a hall mate of Piyal teased us.

“Oh Yes! We are still young at heart,” I said.

“So why didn’t you get married like your friend?”

“Lal still you are worried about girls. You have not changed”.

“Come. Let’s go and serve ourselves. Otherwise we’ll have to starve”.

It was a buffet lunch with traditional Sri Lankan food as well as Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Western.

Lal found a table for us. “You seem to be poor eaters”, he said looking at our plates.

“We are growing old and so are our taste buds.”

“Rupa is correct. Not only our taste buds, every aspect of our lives too”.

“What do you mean by every aspect Nelum?” Lal asked.

“Lal, I don’t want to talk about them today. We’ll meet some other day and talk”.

“We’ll meet at my place. I live alone.”

“That’s a good idea”. Lal said with the same enticing smile he had, many decades ago.

A few days later, Nelum telephoned me.

“Why don’t you come over here on a day you are free?”

“Thanks for the invitation. I’ll come sometime.”

“I need to know about certain things you told me when we met last.”

“O.K. Nelum. I’ll drop in soon. Then I’ll be able to meet Piyal also”.

“You won’t meet him. He is away in the States.”

It was on a weekend that I could go to Nelum’s residence.

She greeted me with the same warmth she had shown me over the years. Yet her exuberant appearance was not there.

“Let me tell you what happened. It’s long story. We’ll have some tea and then I’ll relate what happened”.

Sipping the marvellous tea that Nelum is famous for, I listened.

“Do you remember our campus days? Every evening Piyal and I used to meet. When we had lectures in the morning I was looking forward for the evenings. We strolled along the bank of the river or simply sat on the bank watching the flow of water. Just sitting close to him, listening to his narratives about how the day was spent, what they were planning to do during the vacations, I felt that I was having the happiest time. Looking back, I can say it was.”

“I remember you used to dress up every evening and wait on the balcony till Piyal came. When he was coming along the bend you ran downstairs taking your raincoat”.

“Yes. Whether it was raining or not I carried my raincoat, to cover ourselves if it rained or to put it on the ground and sit”.

As I listened to Nelum, I too was transported to those halcyon days of our undergraduate times. There were about ten girls in our clique. During the first year itself, two of them had developed close relationships, one with a boy in a senior batch and the other with one in our own batch. That was Nelum. We went on hikes to the hills that surrounded the campus. We had freedom to go out during the day; but the wardens of the girls’ hostels had imposed a rule that we had to be in the hostel by 7 p.m. We were all from protected homes.

“Do you remember how often we climbed that range “Hantana”?

“Yes,” said Nelum. “Those hikes too gave me time to be with Piyal. I dreaded the long vacation”.

“For me, the long vacation was a blessing. I got all the attention from my mother”.

‘You lucky girl!’

“You say that. Some people say that I have not thought about my future. When my parents are no more, I would be all alone and they ask me who would care for me in times of illness.”

“They are trying to awaken you to life’s realities” said Nelum.

I had not worried about a future without my parents. Nelum did not seem to realise the impact her words had on me. I felt an inner turmoil brewing. An inner voice said ‘Such a future is not far away. Get ready for it’.

Nelum’s voice impinged on my reverie. “Look who is coming”.

Lal was at the doorstep, looking tired but lively.

“What time did you come Rupa?”

“I came early, thinking that you too would come”.

“You know, Lal, this lady has a new concept about marriage. I’ll get a cool drink for you. Then we’ll listen to her”.

I started. “Lal this is what I found in most marriages”.

“O.K. I am all ears”.

“Two people, born and bred in two areas of the country, meet at a university or a working place, and get to know each other. There I see the meeting point of the two lower diagonal lines of the letter “X”. The two individuals had led their childhood, adolescence and youth engaged in a multitude of activities depending on their abilities, tastes and individual backgrounds.”

Nelum interrupted me. “In our case I was from the upcountry and Piyal from a coastal town. The two areas had more differences than similarities.”

“Yes. Starting from two points far away from each other your Fate or Karma or God’s will made you travel towards the mid-point of “X” That was your meeting with Piyal in the campus. Your relationship with him grew in leaps and bounds. After you passed out, the two of you fought obstacles that came your way and crowning it all you tied the knot. The mid-point of “X” was reached. We watched the looks you and Piyal exchanged, the smile that hovered on your faces as you left on your honeymoon. Can you remember Lal?”

Lal who was listening intently burst out. “I can remember as if it was only yesterday”. I saw Nelum, stirred by the nostalgic memories, was surveying our faces as if to say ‘how short lived was that blissful state, you would never guess!’ Aloud she said, “Are you going to add the words and they lived happily ever after?”

“I wish it was so. But I see that subsequent to arriving at the mid-point, the diagonal lines had commenced to deviate, just as the lines in the letter “X”.

A deep silence fell. I could only guess, what my two pals underwent. ‘Had Lal too undergone unpleasant experiences?’

I felt that I should barge into their contemplation.

“Look here. Did I hurt your feelings? Sorry if I have done that. I never meant to do so.”

Lal said “How did you get this idea Rupa? I have to agree with most of what you said. Then what happens to the diagonal lines in the upper part of “X”?”Do they go on getting further and further away from each other?”

“Yes. You are correct. As complexities in life arise, the two individuals face them in different ways. That causes arguments leading to disappointments and frustrations which leave permanent scars, even though wounds heal”.

“So then what is the end?”

I said “Either divorce, death or becoming indifferent”.

It was time for lunch. Lal got up and said “Let’s eat. I am hungry after listening to Rupa’s analysis of marriage.”